Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What Are The Sicilian Vespers? A Vulpes Libris Random

Or do I mean What Is The Sicilian Vespers? If not, I might mean What Were The Sicilian Vespers, or What Was Etc. Etc. For the purposes of this piece, they are, or it is, an opera or a massacre, so probably the singular is called for.

Every so often I have a chance of a night at the opera, and the latest I have been to see is Verdi’s Grand Opera Les Vêpres Siciliennes, a relative rarity these days. I am invariably beguiled by the emotional power of the music in opera to be moved by plots and action that in a stage play would risk being ludicrous, and Verdi’s history based operas are top of the list for this. (Last year I went to Don Carlo, so I’m collecting the set.)

Why, being a Verdi opera, Les Vêpres and not I Vespri? Clue in title is that this work was originally written for the Paris Opéra and opened in 1855. It came at the tail end of a tradition of mammoth five-act operas on historical and mythic subjects, with at least one ballet sequence, timed specifically so that members of the Jockey Club could come in after their legendary dinners in time to turn their binoculars onto the dancers on the stage (I am indebted to the excellent Royal Opera House programme for this information). Verdi provided the requisite ballet and threw in a tarantella and a barcarole for good measure. The current ROH production references this Parisian context in a set and costumes for the dancers that have a strong look of Degas paintings about them, distancing the opera even further from its inspiration in a 13th century Sicilian uprising and massacre. I found it distinctly surreal, and a very strong hint to forget everything we thought we knew about the historical record.

At the heart of the action is a struggle between love and duty for hero and heroine Henri and Hélène, Sicilian patriots, Henri’s family secret as the son of the French Governor who abducted and raped his Sicilian mother, and the return of an exiled patriot hero Procida fomenting rebellion, all against the backdrop of the fight for the oppressed Sicilian people to be free of French occupation (scarcely tactful?). The original massacre in question was called the Vespers because of the coincidence that the bells rang for Vespers at the time that enraged Sicilians turned on and killed French troops after one had seized a Sicilian woman in the street. This sparked a rebellion that spread across the island and marked the end of Angevin domination. In the opera, Procida’s conspiracy makes that deliberate in that the sound of bells (wedding bells) will be the sign for an uprising.

I’m intrigued by all things Sicilian, so I turned to my bookshelves to find out what was behind this opera. It is many years since I read The Sicilian Vespers by Steven Runciman, first published in 1958. This book is a survey of the Mediterranean world and Sicily’s place in it, up to and just beyond the uprising known as the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. Picking it up again I was surprised how unused I’ve become to ‘history as kings and queens’. The Sicilian people scarcely get a look in, until they turn on their Angevin occupiers in the streets of Palermo, and even then end up the subjects of another faraway kingdom. There are certainly enough kings here, mostly called Robert, Roger and William with an influx of Fredericks, and so many queens called Constance that I nearly reached for a notebook to record their dates and husbands so I could keep a grip of which generation we were in.

Sicily has notoriously been occupied multiple times from the age of the Sicily, by invasion or dynastic manoeuvre, and the early chapters sweep through the eras of Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim and Norman rule, slowing down as the time of the Angevins approached (this is the particular brand of oppression in place at the time of the uprising).

In his introduction, Runciman takes aim at the operatic version:

[I]t is to be hoped that no-one will try to learn history from the libretto that Scribe provided for Verdi. That was an unfortunate work. It was commissioned for a gala performance at Paris; and it offended Verdi and the Italians because the traditional hero of the Vespers, John Procida, appeared as a sly and unprincipled intriguer, the Sicilians because they were treated as both cruel and cowardly, the Austrians because it dealt with a rising of Italians against occupying power, and the French because the climax of the play was a deserved massacre of their compatriots.

So Runciman had no time for Scribe’s and Verdi’s opera, but his talking down of its success is somewhat wide of the mark (especially as he devotes much of a chapter to the wheeler-dealing of John Procida as a pan-European conspirator and servant of the Kingdom of Aragon; he was an ageing political fixer, not the hard-bitten peg-legged dark-brown-bass-voiced freedom-fighter of the opera). Verdi had his frustrations working with Scribe, who just happened to have a libretto he’s made earlier called Le Duc d’Albe about an uprising in the Netherlands – all it needed was a little rebranding – didn’t it? But he soldiered on. The opera had quite some success with the Parisian audience, who had spent decades chewing down on historical inaccuracy and knew the score, and it ran for longer than expected. But it came at the end of the tradition of sprawling 4 hour 5 act monsters, ushering in operas with tighter plotting, no breaks in the action for ballets, and deeper psychological reflection, so it fell out of fashion rather than favour. Revivals in the 20th century tended to be of Verdi’s revised version for Italian audiences (I Vespri), until the ROH went back to its Parisian origins in 2013.

For homework before any visit to the opera I turn to my cherished copy of the late Sir Denis Forman’s The Good Opera Guide. There are many serious guides to opera, with notes on plot, characters and music. This is not one of them, though its analyses of the 83 operas it covers are thoroughly sound, ferociously well-informed, and underpinned by love. Each opera is treated to a wonderfully disrespectful and slangy synopsis, followed by a detailed, sensible and well-informed act-by-act commentary on the action and the musical highlights. (One of the main reasons for creating this guide was to assist those whose main experience of opera is through listening to recordings. The commentary provides some of the colour and action to put the recorded sound into context.) To give a flavour of the fun bit, here is Forman’s take on the final act, when Hélène forgives Henri’s prevarication over being a rebel having learnt who his father is, and agrees to marry him (easy as that).

The wedding guests sing usual wedding stuff: Elena (Helene) is happy as Larry: Arrigo (Henri) is also happy to marry Elena but is still broody. Procida comes on and tells Elena his secret plan: when the wedding bells sound uprising natives will fall on the French and slaughter them. Elena is in a fix: she feels she cannot reveal Procida’s plan to Arrigo who says What’s up, you dumb or something? Elena decides: the wedding is off. Arrigo is upset. Procida is cross at double-crossing Elena (no wedding bells no uprising). Monforte arrives and says nonsense give me your hands you are now married: the bells ring out: a highly successful massacre commences.

Curtain down.

Such fun, preceding a very helpful guide to the music and action. Les Vêpres is not the easiest of Verdi’s operas to take, and by far from being the most moving, but it contains some touching moments, and much superb music, not least the overture, which is so good it is sometimes heard alone.

So I recommend Runciman’s book with some reservations, elegantly written and overflowing with erudition as it is. But I highly recommend Denis Forman’s opera guide – my go-to companion in an unfamiliar stage world, gently undermining its reputation as high culture and helping me think that it is a world I can share.

For a more coherent account of Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes click here.

(Sir) Steven Runciman: The Sicilian Vespers. Pbk ed. Cambridge: CUP, 1992. 356pp
ISBN 0521437741
First published 1958.

(Sir) Denis Forman: The Good Opera Guide. Pbk ed. London: Orion Books, 1997. 953pp
ISBN 9781857999730
First published 1994.
Later editions do exist, but I could not resist using the cover illustration of my paperback edition, because it is so thoroughly in on the joke.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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